A review of Alan Garner’s latest novel.

This book confused me, I admit, but I loved it. The more I try to explain it to people the better I understand it, the greater the depth of my thoughts, and the more it inspires me. I think all books are like that, your appreciation improving through interpretation and sharing, but for some this is essential in order to unlock their secrets (Ulysses anyone?) Boneland isn’t an easy book to read. Parallel narratives are explored with little indication as to why, questions are left unanswered, and the lines between reality, fantasy, madness and theory are only faintly drawn, but it is definitely worth it.

Colin, a psychologically troubled but brilliant astrophysicist, is searching for his lost twin sister amongst the Pleides (a distant constellation). No, seriously. Juxtaposed with this is the story of The Watcher, a prehistoric shaman trying to stop the world from dying. He dances a lot. Colin’s narrative is punctuated with episodes of mental breakdown, but in being interspersed with the poetic ‘madness’ of The Watcher, you begin to doubt whether such outbreaks can be labelled so easily; he may be more closely linked to The Watcher than we realise (time, of course, not really being linear. Obviously). It’s frustrating not knowing exactly what is going on, but also strangely liberating – how often these days do you come across literature that is, like poetry, open to interpretation?

I’m interested in prehistoric archaeology (particularly the Neolithic period, as it has all the fun stuff like barrows and stone circles), so this was right up my street. Colin provides fascinating academic insights into this, through conversations he has with his unconventional therapist, but we are also able to explore an idea of the prehistoric mindset through The Watcher. The way these scientifically explained wonders could impact upon the beliefs of prehistoric man is considered, but we are also invited to contemplate the reverse; that science has mistakenly simplified things. Someone pompously told me once that science is the latest religion. More than being merely a metaphor for people’s blind faith in science though, this idea forces us to question the ‘truth’ and motives of science – something we often take for granted through over-confidence in our own supremacy.

It’s an interesting combination, archaeology and astrophysics, and raises more questions than the narrative alone can answer. Thank goodness! I’m getting quite sick of being told that everything has to make sense in novels, so three cheers for Alan Garner. This could never be a debut novel, of course, for that very reason, but it reminded me that it’s okay for literature to make us think.

Does anyone else enjoy ‘challenging’ fiction, or do you catch a whiff of pretension and elitism when you encounter it?

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Tags: book, review, Boneland, Alan Garner, archaeology, literature


9 thoughts on “Boneland

  1. Yes, I also value stories with themes you can only grasp subliminally, or only see from the corner of your eye, as it were. Some children’s picture books are particularly good at this – I keep a shelf full of them to reboot the sensibilities every now and then.

    • Absolutely agree about children’s picture books – I too keep a shelf of these! I always adored Patricia Wrightson’s books when I was growing up, The Nargun and the Stars in particular, and still return to them now with my younger students (I don’t care if they don’t like them, the little philistines; they will learn.) There’s a lot more room for imagination in children’s books isn’t there – I get the impression the publishing world believes that adults have lost this ability, which just isn’t true. Jx

  2. I really love this kind of book! One I will be looking for when I’m finished my current book “The Gollem and the Jinni”, which is a quirky kind of book too.

  3. Yes, when I was at university, I enjoyed Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway which both created innovative approaches to storytelling. A while ago, I wrote about Ultramarine by Malcolm Lowry: another excellent book that challenges readers expectations. The relatively recent success of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is further proof that unusual books can be great fun.

    Thanks for writing this review, Boneland sounds like it’s worth a read.

    • Mrs Dalloway is such a wonderful novel isn’t it – I always list it in my top five (though I do also have a fondness for Jacob’s Room). Thanks for the recommendation; I’ll check out Ultramarine as well! Jx

      • Awesome! If you like Mrs D – and you haven’t read it – you’ll like The Hours by Michael Cunningham too. There was a film made, starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, but the book is much better. Glad you’re going to check out Ultramarine; it’s a great début!

  4. I added this to my wishlist 🙂 I love books that make me think, even though since my kids were born I have less time to think about them. I confess that I do like the ending to tie most of the strings, but I really like it when a book shows me something I never considered before – and this looks like it will!

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